7 Online Marketing Tools That Are Totally Worth the Investment

To do online marketing right, you’ve got to buy the right tools. But what tools are the “right tools”?

After all, some tools are free. Some tools are really complicated. Some are insanely expensive. The point being that with marketing tools, it’s hard to make the right decision.

There are so many alternatives available, and if you haven’t had the chance to experiment with different ones, choosing with confidence becomes especially difficult.

The following list should help. I created it for the agency marketer who’s “trying to do it all.” For the entrepreneur who’s “trying to get her business off the ground.” For the experienced digital marketer who “wants to improve his game.”

Consider this your online marketing-tool cheat sheet — one that can help you skyrocket your marketing.

1. Email marketing (and more): InfusionSoft

What it does: InfusionSoft is a bit on the pricey side, but it’s a powerful tool. Its best features are its automation features, which make it insanely effective for marketing campaigns. My delivery rates with InfusionSoft have been excellent!

How much it costs: InfusionSoft is a powerful yet costly email marketing tool. A one-time startup fee of around $2,000 will get you set up. Thereafter, fees range from $199 to $599 per month.

Why it’s worth it: InfusionSoft saves a lot of time. You’ll have to learn the system and get it set up. But once you’ve completed the setup, it’s pretty smooth sailing. Plus, with high deliverability rates and the ability to scale, you’re set for life.

2. Content Marketing: Buzzsumo

What it does: Buzzsumo allows you to find the most shared content on certain topics or websites. You also can filter the lists according to type of content (e.g., infographics, blogs). Buzzsumo’s advanced features, such as “influencers” and “monitoring,” are powerful ways to get ahead of the competition.

How much it costs:

Limited results: Free

Pro: “Our starter plan is ideal for bloggers and small teams.” Costs $99 per month.

Agency: “For agency teams, with all Pro features, API access & more.” Costs $299 per month.

Enterprise: “Ideal for brands and publishers. Advanced functionality for large teams.” Costs $999 per month

Why it’s worth it – Buzzsumo is a content marketer’s dream come true. If you’re searching for trending subjects, analyzing effective headlines or trying to understand how to create the next viral topic, Buzzsumo is the answer.

Related: 11 Marketing Tools Worth Trying in 2016

3. Graphic Design and Visual Content: Canva

What it does: Not everyone can afford to hire a graphic designer. But nearly any of us can learn to do some basic design ourselves. Canva makes design easy and fast. Its tagline, “Amazingly simple graphic design software,” is spot-on. Canva’s templates are optimized for social media, and they are stunning. A few customizing clicks, and you’re set with eye-popping visual content.

How much it costs: Canva charges nothing for using the cloud-based software. If you use “premium elements” (certain images, etc.), you can pay as you go. Canva For Work is an advanced feature of the tool that charges a monthly subscription of $12.95.

Why it’s worth it: You don’t want to skimp on graphic design. Great visual design has a huge impact on how people perceive your brand and interact with your content. Canva will make you look good. And that’s priceless.

4. SEO and Site Speed: Pingdom Website Speed Test

What it does: Improving website speed is one of the fastest ways to improve your SEO and conversion rates. Pingdom’s website speed test helps you do that. Its free report provides instant analysis, plus tips on improving your site speed.

How much it costs: The speed test itself is free. Full website monitoring costs from $13.95 to $454 per month.

Why it’s worth it: For large websites that receive a lot of traffic, full-time monitoring is essential. Just minutes of downtime can cost you traffic and revenue. A monthly cost for Pingdom, to check your website’s status, speed and alerts, can save you money in the long run.

5. SEO: Ahrefs

What it does: Every marketer needs to understand SEO. Ahrefs makes this job simple and straightforward. You can track keyword performance, measure your social metrics, perform backlink analysis, analyze your content, explore trending content, measure your keyword positions and do keyword research. It’s a robust all-in-one SEO tool that will put you on the path to outrank your competitors.

How much it costs: Plans range from $79 to $2,500 per month.

Why it’s worth it: There are plenty of free SEO tools, but few of them provide the full breadth of reliable information that Ahrefs does. Ahrefs’s quality data and reliable results are an essential part of dominating SEO.

6. Social Media: Buffer

What it does: Buffer is social media automation tool. You can schedule updates for Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Facebook and LinkedIn. With a handy browser extension (click to schedule an update), mobile app, calendar, link shortening, optimal timing and social analytics, it’s hard to beat.

How much it costs: Buffer has a free plan with limited features. Its additional plans range from $10 to $250 per month.

Why it’s worth it: When it comes to social media, saving time is critically important. This is exactly what Buffer does. You can fully automate your social media posting, plus set up an ideal posting schedule in seconds. In business, time saved is money saved.

7. Marketing Schedule: CoSchedule

What it does: CoSchedule helps you plan your marketing, organize your campaigns, plan your content and get ahead. Marketing needs to be organized, and so does scheduling. It’s not enough to simply create content and make updates. CoSchedule helps to streamline the process. Its integration with Chrome, WordPress, Google Docs and Evernote makes the process even easier.

How much it costs: Coschedule ranges from $15 per month for a solo user to $600 per month for larger agency users.

Why it’s worth it: Staying organized and saving time are the two main benefits of CoSchedule. If your marketing is a jumbled mess of time lines, interest, tweets and unfinished campaigns, CoSchedule can help you sort that all out.

Conclusion

If you’re a marketer, you need tools — good ones. It doesn’t make much sense to skimp on marketing tools.

Why not? When you skimp on tools, you hinder your marketing from getting better. So, regardless of whether you choose these specific tools or not, make it your goal to find tools that you use regularly. Better tools are equivalent to better marketing. Whatever the tool you choose, make sure that you understand it well and that it makes a measurable improvement on your marketing efforts.

6 Steps to Branding Your Business

Starting a business presents a unique set of problems, but branding that company in a way that appeals to the masses oftentimes presents an even bigger and more challenging proposition. That is why, Jim Signorelli, founder and CEO of marketing firm ESW Partners, has created a six-step process that businesses with hundreds or dozens of employees can follow to help strengthen their brand identity.

While branding is often associated with large corporations and pricey advertising agencies, the truth is that companies of all sizes have a brand and can benefit from telling their story.  According to Signorelli, the process to telling this story and identifying the brand is as simple as telling a story.

“The brand is substituted for the main character who is described as having functional capabilities and is additionally infused with values and beliefs that resonate with audiences,” Signorelli said. “In all cases, the brand’s ultimate goal, apart from increasing sales and profits, is to influence a relationship with the prospect.”

Step One: Collect the Back Story: Successful brand stories must start by gathering relevant information, which includes an assessment of the brand’s culture and the problems and opportunities it faces with competition in the marketplace.

Step Two: Characterize the Brand: Once some information is collected about the brand, a more detailed explanation and understanding of the brand’s values and beliefs is needed to further shape the brand story.  Signorelli describes this as setting up guardrails on a brand that will help it stay focused on strengths and avoid weaknesses.

Step Three: Characterize the Prospect: With background information collected, Signorelli believes the next logical step is to identify potential needs that the brand can appeal to with potential customers.

Step Four: Connect the Characters: Creating a strong brand story that appeals to potential customers is not of much use unless that story can be connected to prospective customers. The hope with creating a strong brand story is to build a relationship that is based strongly on values and beliefs.

Step Five: Confront the Obstacles: Signorelli notes that there are four significant challengesthat affect the development of the brand story. These challenges include awareness, comprehension, confidence and affinity and need to be addressed in order to fully connect with customers.

Step Six: Complete the Story Brief: The last step in this process involves connecting what Signorelli refers to as the inner layer and outer layers. Outer layers include the function of the brand and what customers desire, while inner layers include what both parties subscribe to.

9 Steps for Sticking With Your Marketing Plan

In The Marketing Plan Handbook, author Robert W. Bly explains how you can develop big-picture marketing plans for pennies on the dollar with his 12-step marketing plan. In this edited excerpt, Bly explains the nine steps you can take to make sure you’re getting the most out of your marketing plan.

Consistency is important when you’re trying to implement a long-term marketng plan, so resist the temptation to abandon a strategy if it doesn’t work immediately. Give it time to work. These nine steps can help you make the most of your well-crafted plan:

  1. Every day, be renewed by your vision. Your mind can be your greatest asset or your most tiring obstacle. So begin your day by renewing your mind with the clarifying power of your vision. When W. Clement Stone and Earl Nightingale both said, “Whatever the mind of man can conceive and believe, it can achieve,” they knew these were far more than simple words on a page. There simply is no substitute for the power of belief. When you believe, obstacles that would throw your entire day into chaos suddenly become bleeps that you just intuitively know how to solve without expending valuable time or energy. Don’t laugh this off as touchy-feely. This is one of the most inexpensive and profitable investments you’ll ever make in yourself. Just do it.
  2. Focus on your niche. Become the expert in all things involving your niche. Don’t limit your knowledge to the services you offer. The more you know about your niche’s priorities and challenges, the more valuable a resource you can become to them. Become familiar with other professionals who can assist your niche with challenges outside your expertise. When you’re tempted to work with clients outside your niche, make sure the time and payoff will be worth it and won’t draw you away from your commitment.
  3. Stay close to your ideal client. Networking, surveys, online community forums, trade magazines, and associations are all great ways to keep sharp about the things that matter to your ideal client. Also, stay on top of the news, and ask yourself how your client’s needs will be affected by changes in the business and world environment.
  4. Keep your eyes on your competition. If your clients stop think­ing that you offer a competitive advantage in addressing their needs, you lose and the competition wins. Enough said. Don’t be the last to know what your competition is doing.
  5. Make sure you’re positioned to win. If you’re doing the first four steps, you’ll know when it’s time to change your tune, tweak your message, and speak a new language that’s more in tune with what your ideal client needs. Ask yourself, “Is my unique selling proposition still unique? Does anyone do it better? What one thing can I do to serve my clients better?” That’s how you stay unique.
  6. Take action every day. Stick close to your plan. Follow your schedule. Complete the actions you say you’ll complete in your daily sched­ule. At the end of the week, give yourself a grade for effort. Then give yourself another one for accomplishment. If you’re getting A’s for effort and C’s for accomplishment, trouble­shoot.
  7. Focus on one marketing project at a time. One of the greatest mistakes people make in setting goals is trying to work on too many things at one time. There’s tremendous power in giving focused attention to just one idea, one project, or one objective at a time.
  8. Ask yourself good questions. As you think about your goals, instead of wishing for them to come true, ask yourself how and what you can do to make them come true. The subconscious mind will respond to your questions far more effectively than just making statements or wishes.
  9. Congratulate yourself. You’re halfway home. You’ve done something that less than 3 percent of the population has done — set goals and create a plan for achieving them. Every study on the subject tells us you’re far more likely than most to succeed with your plans if you’ll only do one thing: take action!

10 Business Lessons I Learned Studying My Competition

Our competition isn’t just there to beat. They can also teach us how to get better at what we are doing so that we can beat them at their own game. I see my competition as a bar set for me to jump over.

In the business world, anything goes. While some people like to think of scoping out and spying on the competition as a bad thing, I love looking at everything they are doing through a spy glass. This gives me insights into what’s working and I should focus my time on and what isn’t working and I shouldn’t waste my time.

Here’s what my competition is teaching me about productivity across various aspects of their company that’s helping change my business for the better:

1. Content.

While I never copy my competition’s content, I read what they have, if they use a call to action, how they approach what is shared and how often they update their content.

Look to see if your competition is using video, infographics or some other type of content that resonates with your shared audience. It’s also good to know where they are sharing this content to see if there are any places I’m missing opportunities to add or share information. Reading the competition’s content showed me how to say it differently. Had I not looked at the competition, it would have taken me longer to shape my content strategy. I avoided misstepped that would have cost me prospects or customers.

I recently found out that my competitor has a piece of content that ranks well. They attract nearly half their organic traffic to their site each month from one term. I created a much better version of this and push it hard. I don’t look at this as bad or negative. I see this as a big opportunity to give users an even better experience.

2. Online marketing.

To see if my marketing strategy would work, I considered what the competition was using as their primary messages in terms of a value proposition and the visuals they used to communicate that. I didn’t want to copy it, but I wasn’t going to do anything so different that the audience would be confused. I tracked my competition’s online campaigns on various sites and paid advertising platforms like Google AdWords to see what they were saying.

Kompyte and Perch are new tools that make it easier to stay on top of what the competition is doing. By using these I speed up how long it takes me to formulate the differentiation position that dictates the messages I select.

Related: How to Compete in a Crowded Marketplace

3. Search.

By looking at their website and overall content platforms, I compiled a list of keywords the competition uses. I took these keywords to search engines to determine if the rankings they received were better than my own. When they were, I compared the keyword terms and added those to my online presence, including website, landing pages, pictures and headers.

Available analytics tools from ComScore and others yield deep insights into the results of what your competition is doing. This has changed how I approach search engine optimization and resulted in a higher ranking for my company.

4. Customer engagement.

I learned what works effectively with my target audience by observing what the competition did on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms. Rather than experimenting with the type of social media content, time of day and frequency, I saw how their followers and fans responded. This saved me many trial runs and resources.

In the long run, I approached customers and prospects differently than if I did not consider what the competition was doing. The result was conversations where previously there had been silence.

5. Brand management.

Since I had never developed or managed a brand before, the competition provided a baseline for me to learn how the process works, how to define brand attributes and then how to use this image to craft and manage the reputation process. It also guided what I could do with my own brand to set it apart and provide more value, yet included the attributes that our shared audience wanted.

6. User experience.

Reading the comments and feedback that the competitions’ customers provided in social media, blog posts and forums is an invaluable source of intelligence about a shared audience. I even asked a few questions on these posts to get the competitions’ customers to explain how they felt about their experience with the competition. This told me what type of user experience they are looking to develop.

Related: Don’t Declare War. Respect Competitors, and Capitalize on Your Own Strengths.

7. Product development.

To shape the type of solutions my business offers small business owners and companies, I tried what the competition offered. My product development became more productive when I could see what features were working and what were not. Then, I exploited these differences and added my own spin. Studying the competition triggered new ideas about how to approach development, making it easier to pinpoint where and how changes in my product could propel it farther ahead.

8. Social media.

Studying how the competition used social media saved considerable resources. I started looking at what sites they used and discovered the results of those efforts in terms of fans and followers. I also considered what they were doing on professional sites including LinkedIn to see how they presented themselves professionally. When I tried the social media sites the competition was not using I found they were missing some key platforms, giving me an advantage.

9. Research.

My competition did the heavy lifting for me when it came to target markets and state of the industry. They did not do all the research and hand me a white paper, but using Google Alerts to keep tabs on the competition provides an ongoing stream of information about their strategy, performance and any pivots. This can all be discerned from sales letters, email campaigns, press releases and mission statements. This was certainly more productive than creating my strategy in a vacuum and hoping it would meet the market need and beat the competition.

10. Company culture.

Although I was not privy to the internal workings of the competitions’ organizations, I did create a more productive team by studying how they defined their culture and addressed values, motivation, training and retention. Their hiring literature and employee programs provided new insights on best practices designed to get the most from my team. That enabled me to design a culture around what I wanted to achieve and put it into place quickly, with few changes afterward. Additional information about hiring practices, benefits and perks helped me provide a more effective way to onboard talent.

I’m too busy to reinvent the wheel. Everything I observed my competition do shortened my learning curve and sped progress toward what I was trying to achieve.

I learned from their mistakes and from their processes, ignoring what didn’t work and benchmarking best practices. Scope out your target audience and the overall external environment, but it’s just as important to track the competition.

4 Rookie Errors That Stunt Your Online Business

As our society moves further into the digital age, more of the income from businesses will come from sales online. Every year, we see sales shift from physical stores to the websites of companies, and online business. There is a tremendous opportunity.

While the opportunity is there, so is the competition from many other entrepreneurs who are trying to reach the same people. There’s a lot of noise online from self-appointed experts claiming they know how to write copy that converts. You’ve probably seen a Facebook ad or two that makes crazy claims of success.

There is a way to grow and build a thriving online business despite the competition. It starts with making smart choices. There are four dumb mistakes even those who are smart make without even realizing it. These mistakes could be keeping you from growing your business and reaching your goals.

1. Focusing too much on the “busy work.”

There are many components and things that need to be done to build an online business, or the online part of your business. It’s easy to get stuck on what I call the “busy work.” The busy work can be things like:

  • Always making changes or adding different things to your website.
  • Spending too much time on social media marketing.
  • Constantly checking your stats and getting caught up in what they mean.

All of these things are necessary for building an online business, but only in moderation — there has to be a balance. Most of your focus online should be to build a loyal and engaged audience. You can have the best website in the world, but if no one sees it, you won’t make money. Focus on the things that build your audience instead of the busy work.

Related: Stop Wasting Time, Especially When It Comes to Social Media

2. Chasing what’s hot at the moment.

As I write this, Blab, Periscope, and Facebook Mentions are currently the new “must use” tools/strategies. In six months, who knows what will be the new hot thing. The point is, there will always be some new shiny object that people will say you need to use to grow your business.

They may or may not help your business, and that’s the point. You should know what would help you where you are in your building efforts. This has to be about what’s right for you, not what’s hot. Chasing what’s trending will have you busy, but broke.

3. Not planning content and promotions.

A lot of websites post content based off of what’s on their mind or what’s popular. This is a bad strategy. A good content strategy starts with what promotions you will be having. The content is then designed to answer questions and demonstrate value in a way that makes your leads want to buy into the promotion when it’s offered.

One example. Let’s say you’re in the relationship space and have a course that helps couples. You plan to offer this course in February. Your content in January should be helpful tips, tricks and advice for couples. At the end of January, you simply let your audience know you’re offering more extensive help in your course. The content you created led to the course. This isn’t to say you’ll never cover a trending topic, but you have a definite plan that leads to income for your business.

Related: 5 Tips to Creating a Successful Content-Marketing Campaign

4. Chasing after people who aren’t interested and won’t be.

Facebook groups are a valuable resource for entrepreneurs. Groups are your chance to connect with your audience in an intimate way. One thing you notice in Facebook groups is the people who use the group as an attempt to get new business. They’re constantly posting sales pitches that get ignored because they look desperate. You also see this a lot through email — the cold pitches that are so far off it’s an easy delete.

It works the same way with any of your marketing efforts made to people who aren’t interested and probably never will be. Go where your audience is and where they spend money. Get exposure in mainstream publications, such as Entrepreneur, The Huffington Post, and so on. Instead of chasing the same audience as everyone else, chase the millions who read these publications every day.

It took eight months before I made real money in my online business. I spent too much time on the busy work and chasing what was popular in my niche. I wasted the one resource I can never recover: my time. Once I shifted my focus, I was able to grow my business. Today, I’m in love with writing, speaking all over the world and consulting entrepreneurs/companies.

If you are making any of these mistakes, make a shift. When you focus on making connections and building trust online, you will stand out from all the others shouting for attention. Being different is the secret to reaching people and building a business you cherish.

The 6 Best Ecommerce Platforms for Small Businesses

If you were to track the rise of ecommerce in today’s business landscape, you’d have to go back to the dot com crash of 2000. Despite a tanking economy, the businesses that survived the crash quickly started adapting their selling methods, because, even with an economy going down the drain, it was clear that the Internet would hold the key to the future of sales.

Fast forward to 2015 and the U.S. Census Bureau releasing a report on the dollar amount of ecommerce sales that took place within the first quarter of the year — the total amount was 80.3 Billion — and it’s clear to see that ecommerce is only getting stronger. Today’s consumer has time management and convenience on their mind when it comes to purchasing those sweet luxury or necessity items that you’re marketing to them. But, to be on your A-game, you have to be using the right platform to maximize your sales potential.

Related: The Top 5 Reasons You Should Start an Ecommerce Business

Whether you’re struggling to create a pre-ordering option within your current ecommerce marketplace, or you’re anxious to find out how your warehousing setup will interact with your online store, there are plenty of ecommerce options out there that can help your business succeed.

It’s in that spirit that I’ve taken the liberty of listing out some of the best platforms that I think small to mid-size businesses should be using right now. Here they are in no particular order.

1. Symphony Commerce

The first ecommerce platform I want to talk about is a SaaS (software-as-a-service) type of solution. Of course, I’m being a little biased by putting this first, because I believe that SaaS can be a wonderful solution for businesses of any size — not just big businesses that can afford the overhead cost of farming projects out.

Symphony Commerce, however, is a bit more than a typical SaaS platform, in fact they market themselves as a commerce-as-a-service provider. Not all brands are equipped to transition their physical experience into a digital one, which can make hiring information technology (IT) professionals to run your online store a bit of a headache — and that’s why Symphony Commerce can be an asset to the right kind of company. By off-loading the architecture and backend duties that are critical to maintaining an online store, you can focus on the core aspects of what makes your business tick.

Symphony Commerce isn’t for everyone, though. While the pay-as-you-go pricing makes it an ideal option for a small but fast-growing company, this is a platform for businesses that are already running at full speed. If you’re still in the do-it-yourself phase of getting your business together, it would be better to build a small but functional online store with a site builder such as Squarespace.

2. Squarespace

Speak of the devil! Squarespace makes this list, because its fully loaded ecommerce platform is affordable and can actually help you sell as a small business. No matter which Squarespace template you select — which is another strength of the platform, as you can choose beautiful layouts without having to know a stitch of code — you’ll be allowed to upload an unlimited number of items to your online store and have full control of your inventory management, meaning that it’s easy to offer different variants of the same product type as well as control your inventory stock.

This is definitely an ecommerce platform for the type of business that you can run from your living room, and while your site will look great, Squarespace won’t offer you a lot of capabilities in search engine optimization (SEO) or customer relationship management (CRM). Still, it’s a great platform for any type of business from small retailers to professionals wanting to sell their services.

3. Magento

Magento is an extremely elastic ecommerce platform in that it can fit the needs of small or large businesses, making it probably the most scalable platform on this list. The platform owes its popularity to the fact that it’s open source, which means that adding features is extremely easy. For example, if you’d like to increase conversions on your site, you can add Nosto, a free extension that tracks unique visitor behavior and offers them suggested items based on their online actions.

While Magento can be a great option for growing companies, it is a platform that’s more mature (i.e., complicated to use) than the average platform meant for first time ecommerce retailers. While that shouldn’t deter smaller business owners when it comes to integrating Magento into their workflows, I do suggest that you make sure you’re confident in your ability to learn the ins and outs of using such a sophisticated platform before implementation.

Related: The 5 Most Innovative Trends in Ecommerce to Watch for in 2016

4. CommerceHub

CommerceHub is a cloud based service that allows retailers to dramatically increase their inventory and product offering to the consumers that support their business.

How do they accomplish this? Essentially, CommerceHub works as a merchandising and fulfillment platform that connects online retailers to suppliers — which, as anyone who’s tried to build a relationship with suppliers knows, is a major milestone to reach. Simply put, working with a quality supplier is a goal that can elude many businesses that haven’t yet obtained brand recognition.

The cloud based technology that CommerceHub offers can empower startup ecommerce companies — who traditionally have had to compete with larger retailers to find sourcing partners — to reach 100 percent compliant integration with any product source and allows those retailers to effectively become the middle man between wholesalers and the consumers.

Like other solutions on this list, CommerceHub isn’t necessarily for the early-stage startup as before you can drill down relationships with suppliers, you first have to have created a strong sales funnel that can support a product-delivery pipeline. It is, however, a great option for any startup that’s already on pace to hit quarterly sales numbers on a consistent basis, as well as mid-sized companies that want to build more consistency in their sourcing practices.

5. Drupal Commerce

For my money, Drupal Commerce is definitely one of the more actionable and powerful commerce systems on this list. In fact it’s the only commerce platform that’s built within an entire content management system (CMS). Users of Drupal Commerce can easily customize their workflows, which makes this option ideal for marketers who don’t necessarily have a great deal of expertise working in the backend of ecommerce platforms.

Drupal commerce is also extremely flexible in that it’s highly modular and configurable, which means that it’s built to scale. But this probably isn’t an option for the do-it-yourself entrepreneur. In order to use Drupal Commerce to its full potential, you’ll at the very least need to hire an in-house developer that can help you set up workflows and the overall configuration of how you want your commerce platform to function.

That being said, this is a highly valuable tool that doesn’t come with licensing fees — making it not only a powerful solution but an affordable one as well.

6. Shopify

As the name would suggest, Shopify is all about helping you set up an online store so that you can sell online, and in my opinion, it’s one of the more powerful all-in-one ecommerce platforms out there. It’s also one of the most popular ecommerce building sites on the market today, as Shopify reports that they now have over 100,000 stores using their platform.

With Shopify, you can upload an unlimited amount of products with easy control over variants and overall inventory. It also comes with a discount code engine, and you won’t have to pay for transaction fees. The real beauty of Shopify — and what makes it scalable for any type of business — is their app store, which offers over a 1,000 helpful apps both free and paid.

For example, you can choose marketing plugins that help boost SEO, sales apps that help you customize your product list and social-media apps that help you track your followers to see who has converted and who is most likely to convert — and all of said apps integrate seamlessly with your product pages, shopping cart and Shopify backend. If there’s a drawback to Shopify it’s that it has so many options to choose from that if you’re unseasoned in the ecommerce landscape, it can quickly become overwhelming. Still, this is an extremely powerful tool that doesn’t require a strong tech background to use.

There are more than enough ecommerce platforms out there that can help you fulfill every vertical you want your digital market place to cover. However, picking an ecommerce solution means investment in both time and money. Before settling on any platform I encourage you to do an internal audit of your current needs.

For example, you could be in the market for a relatively cheap solution now, but, as you scale, you know that you’ll need your ecmmerce platform to integrate with other systems like a CMS and CRM. If this is the case a platform like Squarespace might seem enticing in the early goings but could end up costing you in the long run due to its low scalability. You might instead choose Drupal Commerce, as it’s an extremely elastic solution that can integrate with almost any other platform.

5 Steps to Start an Online Business and Living a Much Better Life

As you’re reading this, customers all over the world are spending millions of dollars online. It’s estimated that 2.5 billion people log onto the Internet every day. We live in the Information Age, which has created new opportunities to start or build a business using the power and reach of the Internet.

While the opportunity is there, so is the competition. You can Google any topic and find at least a few entrepreneurs who are serving the market related to that topic. Whether you are growing an existing business through the Internet or starting an online business, you will have to stand out to thrive.

The Internet offers you the opportunity to create a business you love around the lifestyle you want. Operating a business that generates income from anywhere in the world no longer a fantasy. In fact, I’m writing this article on a flight from Maui to Panama. My business is making money as I fly. Here are five steps to create a profitable and successful online business.

1. Pick a profitable topic.

Choosing a topic is a hard enough task on its own. Making sure it’s profitable is where some entrepreneurs sabotage their chances. To create a business your customers have to be able to afford what you offer. Do your research on the profitability of a topic by seeing who serves that audience and how they’re doing.

Online entrepreneurship is generally a harmonious community. Entrepreneurs are likely to answer a few of your questions. If you can’t get any answers, Google always has a few. Make sure the earning potential is there before trying to generate revenue from that topic and audience.

Related: How to Make Money Online: The Basics

2. Create a strong foundation.

Your foundation online consists of your website, email list and social media following. There are many micro-aspects of an online business, but those are at the core. Your website needs to be simple and clean. You have a short window to capture someone’s attention. If your website is confusing, people will click off. Have the fewest pages possible. Have an “About” page that’s personal and connects the reader to your message and you as the entrepreneur.

Social media has billions of users, but the organic reach is next to nothing. You have to pay to reach your audience. Email marketing is still the best way to convert a lead to a customer. Build your email list by offering a small digital freebie to entice people to sign up. Create a presence on every social media platform, but don’t get caught up in the hype behind social media marketing. Use it only as one part of your overall strategy.

3. Build an engaged audience.

If your website and social media presence are a ghost town, you won’t draw people in and convert them into customers. Your goal is to build raving fans and followers that will tell everyone they know about you and your business.

You create that engagement by NOT delivering fluff-filled content. When you provide actionable value, people will become engaged and respond. Don’t buy fans or followers—it never creates engagement. Focus on connecting with an engaged group instead of trying to get big numbers. All of us have seen the entrepreneurs who have 30,000 Twitter followers but only get one retweet when they post.

Related: 5 Tools to Help Your Online Business Realize Its Full Potential

4. Create premium offerings.

A business means you have things to sell, and it’s no different in an online business. One of the nice features of an online business is that what you sell is digital. You can create books, guides, and courses. They can be offerings you create one time, and the work is done—you would then update from time to time. Create different types of programs and courses that help your audience, and use your email list to sell them. Make them actionable and packed full of valuable content.

5. Test and scale.

One of the best ways to know what works best for your business is to test what’s working and what isn’t. Be willing to change your strategy if you see it’s not effective. Don’t blindly follow popular advice just because someone got a certain result in THEIR business—it probably won’t work the same for you. When you have the right combination, scale your business.

Life is short. It’s too short to spend it creating a business that doesn’t give you the kind of lifestyle you want to live. Use the Internet and social media to grow or create a business that gives you freedom. The ability to generate income from your knowledge and through digital offerings is incredible.

There are many voices shouting for attention online. You stand out when you do things differently. Build a loyal and engaged following through authenticity. Deliver value that helps them solve their problems and struggles. It won’t take long for you loyal following to draw others in and your business to grow.

 

Have a Burning Business Question Ask Our Branding Expert Laura Ries

Branding is what differentiates a company from the rest of the pack. From the logo design to the message and marketing tactics, companies need to create an identity that attracts customers and gives them visibility within their market. But coming up with a branding strategy isn’t easy.  Fortunately, we have Laura Ries to provide some insight.

Ries is a leading marketing strategist, bestselling author and television personality, frequently appearing on shows including O’Reilly Factor and Squawk Box. The books she has authored, or co-authored, include The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding, The Origin of Brand, Visual Hammer and her latest, Battlecry, which outlines five tactics for increasing the effectiveness of a company’s logo or tagline.

For her day-to-day work, she, along with her father Al, are the co-founders of Atlanta-based focus-consultancy firm Ries & Ries, where they help brands find and define their focus. The duo have worked with companies across industries, including Microsoft, Ford, Disney and Frito-Lay, among others.

Because of her achievements, Ries has received a number of accolades including the Atlanta Business Chronicle giving her a spot on its “40 Under 40” list, and in 2009, readers of Advertising Age named her book The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding the third most important marketing book. (Her father’s book, Positioning, was number one.)

 

We are thrilled to have Ries as our expert for the month of February. As an entrepreneur, Ries understands the struggles other face when it comes to branding and is thrilled to offer up advice. She is looking to take your questions on an array of branding topics, including marketing strategies, design, advertising, taglines and positioning.

Submit your questions by tweeting us, using the hashtag #ENTexpert. One topic will be selected by the editors of Entrepreneur and addressed by Ries in a weekly writeup.

7 Marketing Mistakes That Could Sink Your Business

I once knew a marketing guy who always thought he could shape-shift the numbers and make them look good. That guy got fired from his job and cost his company hundreds of thousands of dollars. I once knew a company who was afraid to try anything new. Well, that company’s competition blew them out of the water over the next three years with a series of creative campaigns. They had to lay off half their staff.

Businesses live and die by their marketing strategies. Here are seven core marketing mistakes that could put your company six feet under.

Related: 9 Marketing Mistakes That Cost Your Business Money

1. Not taking the time to hear what’s new

The marketing landscape is always changing, part of the job of a good marketer is to stay on the cutting edge of new industry trends. While it might be easier to simply stay focused on what you already know and disregard the latest research and tools, that’s not a recipe for success. Simply put, part of your job is to innovate.

First, make sure you begin each quarter with fresh competitive analysis. What are your competitors doing successfully that you’re not? Do your competitors have a superior content marketing program? Has native advertising on Facebook been their ticket to success? Know your competitors and leverage the channels that are working for them to your advantage.

Next, talk to your vendors. I recommend holding a marketing day at least two times a year. Invite all your current vendors and the vendors who have been reaching out to you to do a 30-minute pitch on what’s new. In addition, make sure to set up meetings with the marketing colleges you respect — whether they are in your industry or not.

Finally, do some research. Make it a habit to visit marketing sites frequently, and digest the information they provide.

Through this process, you will gather a massive list of new ideas. Make sure to allocate at least some of your budget to trying new marketing services each year. For me, I like 10 percent.

2. Not trying at least one innovative growth hack

A good growth hack can easily propel your business to the next level. Growth hacking, simply put, is a creative use of technology to build your brand. If executed correctly, the right strategy can transform your business from a struggling startup to a household name. Unfortunately, many marketers don’t even try it.

The issue often comes down to time and creativity. You might be so busy going over your analytics, looking at your marketing channels and evaluating your latest campaign you think you just don’t have time to sit back and dream up of a creative way that you can use technology for marketing purposes.

Make the time. Close your office door, turn your PC away from you and think about different ways that you can reach people in your target market with the aid of modern technology. If that doesn’t yield anything for you, consider a brainstorming session with some of your favorite geeks on staff who might have insight about technical solutions that you can use.

3. Pulling programs too early

Unfortunately, good marketing costs money and takes time. That’s why you need to be prepared to invest plenty of both if you want to make a sound determination about whether or not a particular campaign is successful.

Search engine optimization (SEO), for example, will take a while. Give your SEO efforts a period of four months before you even look for results. With competition increasing all throughout Google, you cannot simply expect to sign up and be ranked number one. Conversion rate optimization (CRO) also takes time. It can be a few months before you have actually executed a new conversion strategy based on the tests you have conducted.

Regardless of the service, make sure to get a clear understanding of the timeframe from the sales rep before you sign up and stick to it. I have a client who we made an additional one million dollars in profit this year. He has been an SEO client for three years, and every year, we have made him money.

But the first six months he signed up, we had our heads down cleaning up a penalty and fixing his website. If he would have pulled the program in those first six months, he would be much less wealthy. However, he understood the program would take time, and he is now reaping the benefits.

4. Getting talked into a bad service by a slick sales guy

We’re all subject to the power of persuasion. Some of us, more than others, are known to fall prey to the clever tactics of (sometimes unscrupulous) sales reps. Make your decisions about new purchases based on your own analysis as opposed to the wily efforts of commission-paid smooth-talkers who approach you. A simple Google search can provide you with plenty of information about most services that have been around for a while.

Check the reviews, especially the bad ones. Don’t just read the social proof that you’ll inevitably find on the company website. Instead, validate the social proof by contacting the people mentioned. Look for concrete numbers that demonstrate how the service can benefit your organization. Finally, look at the competitors of the service that you’re considering and go through the same review process. You might find that a great service presented to you by a sales rep is offered by another company with a superior reputation of customer support.

Either way, take your time to really vet your new vendors.

Related: Five Signs You Need a Marketing Makeover

5. Dancing around bad numbers

Avoid seeing only what you want to see. Some of your great ideas aren’t going to work. Sometimes, the marketing campaign you thought would take your company to the next level just doesn’t pan out.

Be willing to evaluate your analytics without a bias. If the numbers are showing that the plan isn’t working, then be willing to pull the plug on it, even if it was your brain child. For example, if you’re investing $20,000 in a new ad network, but you’re not seeing the revenue that you think you should, then make it clear to everyone it is not working, and you are going to move on. This is a much better option than trying to highlight metrics that don’t matter.

Bottom line: Embrace bad news instead of trying to make the bad situation look good when everyone can see it is not. It will help you reallocate your resources appropriately so that, in the long run, you stand to benefit.

6. Not creating a clear marketing plan and presenting it to executives

You need to create a marketing plan and make sure it is well organized. You can find a variety of templates online through a Google search, but here is some general top-level insight.

  • Your plan should include a timeline and calendar of events. Why? Because that sets expectations that your plan will not gain immediate results and will keep you focused on major promotions. You’ll need to convince executives that it will take some time before your efforts will be noticeable.
  • You need to segment out each marketing initiative, project the return on investment (ROI) and show the growth over time. It is a good idea to show low, medium and high projections.
  • Include a contingency plan. Sometimes, the best plans go awry. There might be an unforeseen circumstance that derails your campaign effort, so have a Plan B in place in the event that you need it.

If you don’t create the plan and present proper expectations, it could mean your job. But worse than that, it will mean your business is not fully prepared, nor has the strategic planning been done that is necessary to take it to the next level. Do not fly by the seat of your pants — make a plan.

7. Not taking the time to know your core business model

For starters, any marketer needs to know items such as:

  • What is your average customer value?
  • What is the average lifetime of the customer?
  • What is your profit per customer?
  • What is your target cost to acquire a new customer? What is your leeway here?
  • When are your busy and slow seasons?
  • What are your growth goals?
  • What is your budget? What flexibility do you have with this budget?
  • What is a good customer and what is a bad customer?
  • What are all your marketing channels, what is the cost per channel and the return per channel?

Before you can properly craft a marketing strategy for a particular brand, you need to understand its core business model. By this I mainly mean the numbers, but also the subtleties of the business. Otherwise, you cannot make the most intelligent decisions for the marketing channels you are selecting.

Before any strategy is even put to the drawing board, you should understand these core items. In addition, it is also a good idea to learn general marketing information such as what is your business’ personality? What are its values? What are your main customer personas? What are the features that set the brand apart from competitors? What’s the unique selling proposition (USP)?

Arm yourself with that information and design a marketing strategy in line with the overall business model. That way, you can maximize creative potential and revenue. Many businesses I deal with do not know these core numbers. Without knowing these numbers, you cannot spend marketing dollars effectively, and that hurts a business’ bottom-line.

Marketing mistakes are easy to make. The good news is that you don’t have to make them. With some proper planning, due diligence and creative problem solving, you can be well on your way to launching a series of error-free digital marketing campaigns. Just make sure that you’re always keeping up with the latest trends, you know your numbers and you plan and stay honest.

How 8 Mompreneurs Succeeded at Small Business Without Sacrificing Family

Entrepreneurship involves a lot of planning, writing, calculating, paper-filing, marketing and more. Each of these eight moms did it all — with a kid on her hip.

But how did they do it? Caring for family is a major and time-consuming commitment that leaves little physical and emotional energy behind for business ventures. What’s more, most of these mompreneurs had full-time jobs when they began considering starting a business, compelling them to make major life decisions that couldn’t have been easy on the mind or the heart.

Related: 10 Single Mom Entrepreneurs Share Their Best Business Advice

Against all odds, however, all eight mastered the art of balancing business, family and self — and in a way that, from the outside, looks totally effortless. Here’s how they did it.

By recognizing opportunity

Doctor Shannon Davis PT, DPT understood the need for a carpet-, tile-, and wood flooring-compatible balance device that would allow children to move independently one night when she noticed her baby struggling to chase a family pet around the house. After a slew of prototype tests and instances of trial and error, Shannon devised the perfect product: the Little Balance Box, which safely helps babies and toddlers sit, stand and walk without assistance from an adult.

Instead of settling for inadequate stability devices like seated and wheeled walkers, Shannon took advantage of the issue she and her baby were experiencing — after all, others had to be dealing with the same problem.

Special Agent Heather Ryan has a bit of a different story. During much of her time working with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS), Heather regretted being unable to spend sufficient time with her family. When her son graduated kindergarten, Heather could only watch via Skype from eight states away. It was that day she vowed to make a change.

Because Heather had extensive experience investigating major crimes like child abuse, sexual assault and homicide, she thought she could provide insight to the criminal mind that could benefit individuals and families seeking methods of self-defense. By analyzing the information she’d gathered from the most dangerous of “bad guys” over the years, Heather began Safe in the City, a practical safety class aimed toward women and families.

By realizing neither priority (family or business ownership) had to come over the other

Flesché Hesch, branded “the business advisor for moms,” originally wanted to combine family time with that spent on advancing her career. Though she could have returned from maternity leave to a full-time job she enjoyed, Flesché thought she could go one step further by combining her marriage and family counseling expertise with self-employment — specifically, by starting her own business coaching company for moms.

By being 100 percent in control of her own schedule, Flesché was able to make time for family when and how she wanted. To maintain a healthy balance, Flesché says, “No working during family time!” Separating work time from family time allows one to be more mentally and emotionally present during each.

April Perry, founder of Learn.Do.Become, helps others “architect lives worth living” between time spent with her family. While her four children are at school or finishing up homework, April builds her business. When everyone in the family is free, they work together to complete housework, yardwork, cooking and other chores before having fun.

“Running a business from home with four active children definitely requires a lot of patience and creativity!” April says. “It’s definitely a team effort, and there are many days I wonder what we were thinking, but overall, it works for us and we enjoy being able to spend so much time with each other and with our children.”

Nicole Rogers didn’t exclude her kid from any part of the entrepreneurial process — at least, not at the beginning. Nicole founded Agriprocity, a company that fosters long-term, direct relationships between farmers and food processors. Before and during startup, Nicole travelled around the world conducting research for her business, attending conferences and meetings that each took her one step closer to opening. She did it all with her baby boy.

“Taking a baby across the ocean from Dubai to Canada made the journeys challenging,” Nicole says of the process. “Now, our son attends nursery in our office building so we can have flex time with him.” The absence of physical distance between Nicole’s family and her business makes it much easier to remain close with her husband and son.

By capitalizing on their own motherhood

Though some may view parenting as business setback, mompreneurs like Flesche, who teaches other moms how to start their own companies, and Heather, who helps other families stay safe through Get Safe Academy, view it as a major advantage. Sarah Jagger, founder of Domestic Objects, knows she can appeal her products (gorgeous, handmade play tents) to other parents, because they were originally made for her own kids. She also knows her tents are a great way of encouraging imaginative play without the use of technology.

“My customers are almost always moms who are looking for ways to keep their kids active, off electronics, and engaged,” Sarah says. “Today, iPads and other electronics are embedded in children’s lives, and I wanted to find ways to get them using their imagination, playing with each other, being active and having fun. From the marketing side, I think my story helps me sell.”

By owning it

Unfortunately, it’s all too common for working women to receive hurtful comments and questions regarding their abilities to raise happy families while advancing their careers. Mompreneurs experience this tenfold. Rachel Olsen, founder of Best Mom Products and author of the book Shark Tank Mompreneurs Take a Bite Out of Publicity, says she followed the entrepreneurial path to demonstrate female leadership to her daughters, which only strengthens her ability to deflect negative comments from others.

“It’s not for everybody, and it doesn’t need to be,” Rachel says of parenthood and business ownership. “We all have our own path to follow, and when someone discounts my choices in anything, I look at it as a reflection of what they internally have going on — issues they haven’t resolved in their own life. I don’t take it personally.”

Kalika Yap, founder of Luxe Link, The Waxing Co., Citrus Studios, and many others knows as a serial entrepreneur that her unique business lifestyle is right for her and her family. “I don’t feel guilty at all. I know what I do [for] myself or my family is for all of us. I also work very hard and try my best in both work and family life. I’m ‘all in,’” Kalika says.

Kalika is on track to starting a brand new company with her children called Conscious Kids, which will focus on ethical leadership in school-age children. By involving her kids directly in business ownership, Kalika is both a positive role model and a more interactive mother.

It certainly wasn’t easy, but these eight mompreneurs managed to master business ownership without sacrificing family. What will you do with your entrepreneurial career, now that you know anything is possible?